Leon Panetta, the son of Italian immigrants, has spent most of his adult life in public service, rising up the ranks from lowly congressional aide to White House chief of staff, and now is poised to command the Central Intelligence Agency in the age of terrorism.
President Obama’s surprising nomination triggered opposition in the Senate, the intelligence community and among national security analysts because he has no significant experience in defense and intelligence fields and was seen as a bare-knuckled “political choice” to bring about major policy changes at the CIA — including an end to the sometimes aggressive interrogation of high-value terrorists during the Bush administration.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat and the chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and her colleague on the panel, John D. Rockefeller IV, West Virginia Democrat, immediately criticized the appointment because of Mr. Panetta’s lack of national security experience. Mr. Obama talked to Mrs. Feinstein and Mr. Rockefeller, and they quickly fell in line behind Mr. Panetta’s confirmation.
But the former California congressman, who has dealt mostly with budget matters as chairman of the House Budget Committee and as President Clinton’s budget director, has created a sense of uneasiness among veteran national security advisers, even in Mr. Panetta’s own party.
“I do have reservations about Panetta as a CIA director. He’s a good man with accomplished government service and with some national security knowledge,” said Michael O’Hanlon, the ubiquitous foreign policy and military defense analyst in the Brookings Institution who often advises the Democrats on foreign policy issues. “However, he has never had a major job in national security and therefore this seems to be Obama’s weakest appointment in that sphere.”
The former nine-term congressman often voted against President Reagan on major military issues in the 1980s and was a critic of President Bush’s decision to go into Iraq. As a member of the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan panel of distinguished advisers who put together a broad list of recommendations on the war, he supported an early military pullout.
“The Iraq Study Group to my mind did not do a great job in its central recommendation — that U.S. combat forces leave Iraq by early 2008 — and as such I would not emphasize Panetta’s experience in that area as a major accomplishment,” Mr. O’Hanlon said.
“People can surprise you, but I would begin with a lot of skepticism about this choice.”
Still, Mr. Panetta is widely respected for his executive and organizational skills, which were on full display when he became Mr. Clinton’s chief of staff in the summer of 1994. His youthful White House staff appeared unfocused and in disarray and, as one of its Democratic critics said at the time, “needed a grown-up to insert some discipline in its ranks.”
He won wide praise for negotiating the 1996 budget compromise and bringing a sense of order and focus into the White House. As a no-nonsense chief of staff who put together Mr. Clinton’s agenda and day-to-day schedule, Mr. Panetta also oversaw his daily morning intelligence briefing.
“As a congressman, OMB director and White House chief of staff, he has unparalleled experience in making the institutions of government work better for the American people,” Mr. Obama said when he announced his nomination to head the nation’s far-reaching intelligence organization.
“He has handled intelligence daily at the highest levels and time and again he has demonstrated sound judgment, grace under fire and complete integrity,” he said.
The president’s appointment was surprising for a number of reasons, not only because Mr. Panetta supported Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic presidential primaries and considered Mr. Obama unprepared for the job, but also because he was seen principally as a political leader whose career was steeped in political battles, crafting budget deals and legislating domestic issues.
On the other hand, he was in the center of the debate over the war in Iraq as a leading member in the bipartisan Iraq Study Group that reviewed intelligence failures in the run-up to the invasion and had deeply involved himself in intelligence policy as chief of staff when he helped shape the policy known as “extraordinary rendition.” That was the then-little-known practice of capturing terrorism suspects and sending them to other countries for aggressive interrogation, sometimes including torture, far from U.S. judicial procedures and oversight.
Mr. Panetta, now considered a senior statesman of his party, has traveled a long road to get where he is today. He was born in Monterey in 1938, went to Catholic and public schools and worked on his family’s farm in Carmel Valley before graduating from Santa Clara University, where he also earned a law degree.
After serving in the Army as a first lieutenant, he went to Washington, where he quickly rose up the ladder as a legislative aide in the Senate, special assistant to the secretary of health, education and welfare, and director of the U.S. Office for Civil Rights.
He went to New York, where he was executive assistant to Mayor John Lindsey, and in 1971 returned to California, where he practiced law until his election to Congress in 1976.
Mr. Panetta quickly rose up the seniority ranks as he mastered the legislative rules of the House. He served as Budget Committee chairman from 1989 to 1993, when he left Congress in his ninth term to direct the Clinton administration’s Office of Management and Budget. He was a key figure in the development of the 1993 budget that its supporters said eventually led to a balanced budget and the budget surpluses that followed.
After 2½ years as chief of staff, Mr. Panetta left the administration to found and co-direct, with his wife, Sylvia, the Leon and Sylvia Panetta Institute for Public Policy, a think tank at California State University in Monterey Bay.
But Mr. Panetta has been anything but a quiet think tank scholar content to remain out of the political spotlight, serving on numerous blue ribbon public policy panels and boards of directors, including a six-year term on the board of the New York Stock Exchange.
As a major, high-profile promoter of Mrs. Clinton’s presidential candidacy last year, he was not shy about criticizing Mr. Obama, who he said was not ready to handle the presidential reins of power.
“I think the real issue is going to be, again, who has to face the tremendous pressures and crises that a president has to face on walking into the White House,” Mr. Panetta told Jim Lehrer of the PBS News Hour on March 5 in the midst of last year’s primary battle between the two rivals.
“So can Barack Obama learn what it takes to make those decisions? Of course he can. But is there a margin of error that is involved with somebody who has never been there to make those decisions? You bet there is,” Mr. Panetta said.